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Jake Townsend

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Freedom's Lament: Libya's Revolution and the Shackles of the Mind

Posted: 08/30/11 12:34 PM ET

As the last of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists are being defeated on the streets of Tripoli, images of exuberant Libyan citizens, newly free, but weary from fighting and wary of what may come, remind us all that justice and democratic representation are not just political constructs whose merits are to be casually debated; in fact, a transparent, representative and just system is the extension of what is a natural human inclination toward freedom. A human being in his or her natural state is free. Gaddafi violated the human spirit and he is paying for it.

As Libya continues on its path toward a newly reborn nation, and the profound complication of state building begins, Libyans will face another, less visible hurdle; reconciling those deep-seated societal scars resulting from more than 40 years of oppression and fear. As it has been in South Africa, in Chile, in Sierra Leone, in Guatemala, and in many nations around the world -- and as it may come to pass in Egypt and Syria -- as a population wakes up from the nightmare of state-sanctioned tyranny, it must collectively face those shackles of oppression, not just of the body, but of the mind. For if we do not find those parts of us molded by our tormentors, and shed light on them as a citizenry, we run the risk of becoming them. Anyone who has lived for any extended period of time under oppression knows that the strongest tools of coercion are not physical, but mental.

There are so many issues at stake in this fragile stage of transition. Though the world watches the courageous Libyan revolutionaries with hope, the pendulum of justice often swings wildly when being returned to stasis through revolutionary acts. Revolution is fueled by love and rage in equal measure; love for country, and anger at an unjust, inhumane system. After the state is secure, and representational government, where tribal affiliations, religious traditions, territories of origin, gender, and race are represented and protected under the rule of laws created by and for Libyans, anger must give way to passion. For it is passion -- for truth, for reconciliation and above all, passion for the new nation of Libya -- that will propel this beautiful country into a future where the shackles of oppression have been cast off, replaced by a new sense of national self.

Just 27 years-old when he first rose to power, the young Gaddafi was ruthless from those first days seated on his stolen throne. Though his garish personal style and his cartoonish eccentricities nearly masked what lay beneath, in reality, Gaddafi the dictator was a mercurial despot with particularly sadistic methods of invoking fear in the hearts of the people he claimed as his own. After revolution's fervor subsides, one doesn't simply erase 42 years under a profoundly unjust system, but a people united together can create a new understanding of their country and their identity while extricating their collective past.

Oppressive systems, political and otherwise, exist not only because of a physical apparatus, but also because of a collectively reinforced psychological narrative. That is not to say that oppression is in any way a choice on the part of the oppressed; it is enforced, brutally. Yet it is this enforcement/ reinforcement equation that constructs a culture of fear that, once in place, is as powerful as any physical demonstration of subjugation. The illusion of all-knowing, all-seeing autocratic state maintains power through ubiquity, whether real or imagined, coupled with displays of actual brutality. The collective mind of a citizenry becomes fearful, and while kept in fear, is preoccupied with survival. Lives of fear are often lives without any vision of human potential.

Those who have experienced life under an oppressive regime know that state-sanctioned tyranny produces a kind of collective cultural madness that pervades almost every aspect of daily life. You may not personally witness daily acts of torture, and you may not feel physically threatened at every turn, but you feel it. The insanity of inhumanity is insidious, and works its way into the mind with stealth and persistence.

These shackles of oppression, however invisible they may be, are often stronger than any physical restraint, for they are kept in place by the oppressed themselves. As maddening as this fact may be, as deeply counterintuitive and frustrating, it is true that the greatest weapon that a totalitarian state has against its citizens eventually becomes the citizens themselves.

There is a point, however, when the demand for freedom, "the dream of democracy" as one Libyan so poetically put it, outweighs the fear of reprisal, and the lid that barely contained the human spirit is blown apart, unleashing a revolution. Lives are often sadly lost in the process, as is the case Syria at this very moment, but the floodgates have been opened.

It is said that we all carry the seeds of our own self-destruction; this is certainly true in the case of tyranny. The very measures that a dictator uses to oppress are the same measures that citizenry use to revolt against him. In those same seeds, however, are elements that can later cause the carrier to self-destruct, for it is bitterness and hatred -- those same feelings that helped bring about liberation -- that are turned on oneself.

There is also the matter of revenge. For anyone who has experienced the rage that comes, often unexpectedly, post-liberation, channeling it toward those who symbolize its source is as natural a reaction as can be. Libya post-Gaddafi will include in its citizenry individuals and groups who were once loyal to the former regime and its leader. Revenge in any form other than justice served in a court is a dangerous route to take, as acting upon these natural feelings is as damaging to the victim as it is to the perpetrator. That is not to say that tyrants and their cohorts should be given mercy, on the contrary: crimes against humanity must be prosecuted. Justice served is truly the best revenge. It is during this period of reconciliation, where stories of life under Gaddafi will be told, that will allow for a national conversation to take place.

Waking up from decades of autocratic oppression, in which the insanity of a leader's unchecked megalomania permeates every aspect of a country's collective life, takes time. As the revolutionary fervor slowly abates, and the state is rebuilt and reborn, it will be up to Libyans to reflect on the madness of the past four decades. In this reflection, a new Libyan identity will emerge, one that is entirely new and unfamiliar, not only to the rest of the world, but to the citizenry themselves. No one yet knows exactly what it will mean to be Libyan post-Gaddafi, but it is imperative that this national conversation takes place in order that the void left where fear once lay is filled with the passion of freedom.

Libya needs only to look to Egypt for evidence of the emergence of the inimitable human spirit after a revolution; even in this uncertain period before the official Egyptian elections, new voices of reason and dissent -- voices heretofore only whispered -- are now loudly being heard in the chorus of the revolution. When rage gives way to passion, and passion paves the way toward equanimity in all aspects of Libya's national life, so too will a new Libyan voice arise.

The 42-year reign of Gaddafi, a period of growth and despair in equal measure, is now a part of Libya's history, fading quickly away with each toppled statue, every triumphant public cry, with each small expression of the human spirit in defiance of a state once under the oppressive fists of a man and his family. And now, as if from a bad dream, Libyans will slowly wake up and begin to learn who and what they are in this new, and still unknown place. As has been successfully undertaken in many nations, Libya will begin reconciling its past so that those shackles of tyranny, once hidden away in the recesses of the mind of millions, will be brought to light and cast off in the name of freedom.

The human spirit yearns to be free. In its natural state, unrestrained in thought and expression, unshackled by oppression and tyranny, our brothers and sisters long for lives of dignity and strength, protected by a just and fair representational government. It is only the tyrant, whose bluster and ego masks fear and derision, who would claim that he -- and only he -- knows what is best for 'his' people.

How many revolutions will it take before the world's dictators, tyrants and despots realize that one man or one unjust system cannot contain the strength of the human spirit?